The British Invasion
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Paterson and Ross had struck the Baratarians just in time. The fortnight asked of the British by Lafitte expired the next day. The British themselves were far away eastward, drawing off from an engagement of the day before, badly worsted. A force of seven hundred British troops, six hundred Indians, and four vessels of war had attacked Fort Bowyer, commanding the entrances of Mobile Bay and Mississippi Sound. Its small garrison had repulsed them and they retired again to Pensacola with serious loss, including a sloop-of-war grounded and burned.
Now General Jackson gathered four thousand men on the Alabama River, regulars, Tennesseeans, and Mississippi dragoons, and early in November attacked Pensacola with great spirit, took the two forts – which the Spaniards had allowed the English to garrison – drove the English to their shipping and the Indians into the interior, and returned to Mobile. Here he again called on Claiborne to muster his militia. Claiborne convened the Legislature and laid the call before it.
His was not the toaster-spirit to command a people so different from himself in a moment of extremity. On every side was discord, apprehension, and despondency that he could not cure. Two committees of safety engaged in miserable disputes. Credit was destroyed. Money commanded three or four percent a month. The Legislature dawdled until the Louisianian himself uttered a noble protest. “No other evidence of patriotism is to be found,” cried Louallier, of Opelousas, “than a disposition to avoid every expense, every fatigue.”
It was easy to count up the resources of defence: Paterson’s feeble navy, the weak Fort St. Philip on the river, the unfinished Fort Petites Coquilles on the Rigo-lets, Ross’s seven hundred regulars, a thousand militia mustered at last after three imperative calls, a wretchedly short supply of ammunition nothing more. “Our situation,” says La Carriere Latour in his admirable memoir, “seemed desperate.” Twelve thousand chosen British troops were known to have sailed for Louisiana.
Put suddenly, one day, the first of winter, confidence returned; enthusiasm sprang up; all was changed in a moment by the arrival of one man, whose spare form thrilled everything with its electric energy. He reviewed the Creole troops, and praised their equipment and drill; he inspected their forts; he was ill, but he was everywhere; and everyone who saw that intense eye, that unfurrowed but fixed brow, the dry locks falling down over it as if blown there by hard riding, and the two double side lines which his overwhelming and perpetual “must and shall” had dug at either corner of his firm but passionate month, recognized the master of the hour, and emulated his confidence and activity. Like the Creoles themselves, brave, impetuous, patriotic, and a law unto himself, and yet supplying the qualities they lacked, the continent could hardly have furnished a man better fitted to be their chief in a clay of peril than was Andrew Jacksoil.
Soon the whole militia of city and State were added to the first thousand, organized and ready to march. There was another spring to their tardy alacrity. Eighty British ships, it was said, were bearing down toward Ship Island. Cochrane, the scourge of the Atlantic coast, was admiral of the fleet. On the 14th of December forty-five barges, carrying forty-three guns and one thousand two hundred British troops, engaged the weak American flotilla of six small vessels near the narrow passes of Lake Borgne. There was a short, gallant struggle, and the British were masters of the lake and its shores.
Even then the Legislature pronounced against Claiborne’s recommendation that it declare martial law and adjourn. But Jackson instantly proclaimed it in ringing words. “The district’s safety,” he said, “must and will be maintained with the best blood of the country,” and he would “separate the country’s friends from its enemies.”
Measures of defence were pushed on. Forts and stockades were manned, new companies and battalions were mustered, among them one of Choctaw Indians and two of free men of color. The jails were emptied to swell the ranks.
And hereupon John Lafitte, encouraged by Claiborne and the Legislature, came forward again. Jackson in one of his proclamations had called the Baratarians “hellish banditti,” whose aid he spurned. But now these two intrepid leaders met face to face in a room that may still be pointed out in the old cabildo, and the services of Lafitte and his skilled artillerists were offered and accepted for the defence of the city. All proceedings against them were suspended; some were sent to man the siege-guns of Forts Petites Coquilles, St. John, and St. Philip, and others were enrolled in a body of artillery under “Captains” Beluche and Dominique. One of the General’s later reports alludes to the Baratarians as “these gentle men.”